White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu and Mets starter Jacob deGrom were named the 2014 Rookies of the Year in the American and National Leagues Monday night. Both were obvious choices, with Abreu winning unanimously and deGrom finishing first on 26 of 30 ballots and second behind Reds center fielder Billy Hamilton on the other four.
The right-handed deGrom, who went 9-6 with a 2.69 ERA and more than a strikeout per inning in 22 starts for New York, turned in the only star-level performance in an otherwise underwhelming NL rookie class. Abreu, who hit .317/.383/.581 with 36 home runs and 107 RBI, led the majors in slugging percentage and OPS+ (169) and ranked among the best hitters in the major leagues this past season, regardless of experience level. The honor has a greater significance for Abreu. He is the fourth Cuban-born player to win a Rookie of the Year award, but it marks the first time that a player who defected from Cuba as an adult has won the Rookie of the Year.
Jose Canseco, who won the AL award in 1986, came to the United States with his family as an infant. Last year’s NL winner, Jose Fernandez, defected with his mother as teenager in 2008 and subsequently attended high school in Tampa and was subject to the Rule 4 draft. Meanwhile, the first Cuban-born Rookie of the Year, Twins great Tony Oliva, came to the U.S. freely in February 1961 just two months before the Bay of Pigs invasion heightened tensions between the two countries.
As major league salaries have increased, thus upping the incentive for potential defectors, Cuban players have had an increasing presence in the major leagues. Recent defectors such as Yasiel Puig, Yoenis Cespedes, Aroldis Chapman and Abreu rank among the game’s biggest stars. The aforementioned players as well as outfielder Yasmany Tomas, who defected in June, are among the most sought-after free agents almost immediately upon news of their defection. However, players must be cleared by the U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control and acknowledged as a free agent by Major League Baseball before he is free to sign with a major league team in the U.S., a process that can take months.
The Cuban National Series, Cuba’s highest league, in which all five of the players mentioned in the previous paragraph starred, represents an elite level of play. Cuba’s national team, comprised of National Series players, has had a great deal of success in international competition, winning three gold medals and a silver the last five times that baseball was included in the Summer Olympics and making the finals of the 2006 World Baseball Classic. As a result, there is a perception that the transition to the major leagues is an easy one for Cuban defectors. That couldn’t be further from the truth.
Cuban players attempting to move directly to the major leagues have to cope with culture shock and language barriers more dramatic than that of other Latin American and Caribbean players, most of whom have spent years in the minors prior to getting the call to the majors. In addition, Cuban players have to deal with the harsh realities of defection, which can include leaving immediate family behind without knowing if they would ever be reunited and, more recently, often involves the facilitation of shady smugglers who effectively hold the players hostage in search of big paydays. More detail can be found in May’s Los Angeles Magazine piece on Puig’s defection through Mexico. Cuban players who defect directly to the U.S. are also subject to the draft and the reserve system, thus most opt to defect to a third country, often Mexico, Haiti or the Dominican Republic, where they can establish residency while applying for eligibility with OFAC and MLB.
Abreu has yet to disclose the details of his defection, which saw him leave without his young son and family, but an investigative piece by the Chicago Tribune’s Jared S. Hopkins published Monday morning uncovered enough peripheral information to portray his boat trip to the Dominican Republic as life-threatening. Abreu’s only direct comment in the piece was an ominous one. “I think it’s best not to talk on that subject,” Abreu said in Spanish. “Someday, God willing, if we’re in the position to, I’ll be able to talk about that with all my heart.” Abreu’s son and family made it to the U.S. in May.
The facts of his defection alone would make Abreu’s success this past season remarkable, but it was all the more so for how few other players have made a similar transition with such success. Since Rey Ordoñez finished fifth in the NL voting in 1996, 12 Cuban-born players have received votes in the Rookie of the Year voting, including Puig and Cespedes, both of whom finished second in their league’s voting in 2013 and 2012, respectively.
Of those 12 players, just three went straight to the major leagues without spending any time in the minor leagues. Those three were White Sox shortstop Alexei Ramirez, who finished second in the AL voting in 2008 and has never played a single game in the minors (not even on a rehab assignment), Cespedes and now Abreu. Of the other nine players, most not only made their professional debuts (the Cuban National Series is an amateur league) in the minors but spent significant time in the minors before making their major league debuts.
That is the context in which Abreu compiled the highest OPS+ by a rookie who qualified for the batting title since Cleveland’s Shoeless Joe Jackson posted a 193 mark in 1911 and the sixth-highest home run total by a rookie in major league history (and highest since Albert Pujols did him one better in 2001).
As for deGrom, he faced no such adversity on his way to the major leagues, but his performance was arguably as surprising. A ninth-round pick out of Stetson University in 2010, deGrom was a shortstop in college before his coach made him a pitcher as a junior. Six starts into his professional career, he went under the knife for Tommy John surgery. Heading into his age-24 season in 2012, deGrom’s pitching career consisted of half a season at college and six starts in rookie ball. He excelled that year in A-ball, but struggled upon promotions to Double- and Triple-A in 2013, going 7-7 with a 4.51 ERA and a 1.45 WHIP on the year. Heading into this season, he was rated the 10th-best prospect in the Mets system by Baseball America, while Baseball Prospectus wasn’t even that favorable, reporting “sources aren’t sold that he’s a viable major-league starter, but he could find a home in the bullpen ... or chew innings in a long relief/spot starter capacity.”
When he was called up to the Mets on May 13, he was initially eclipsed by fellow starter Rafael Montero, who was called up the next day and considered the better prospect. That didn’t last long. In his major league debut, deGrom held the Yankees to one run over seven innings and his first four starts were all quality. His fourth start, his first on the road, included 11 strikeouts in 6 1/3 innings.
After a three-start adjustment period in early June, deGrom, armed with a mid-90s fastball, sinker, slider, curve and change, finished the season as one of the best pitchers in baseball. He went 9-2 with a 1.99 ERA, 1.01 WHIP, 10 strikeouts per nine innings and a 4.40 strikeout-to-walk ratio over his final 15 starts of the 2014 season. In his final 12 starts, he posted a 1.90 ERA, a mark bested only by Clayton Kershaw among all pitchers with 75 or more innings pitched after July 3, a performance good enough to grow hair on Mr. Met’s head.
Abreu is the first White Sox player to win Rookie of the Year since Ozzie Guillen in 1985. He is also the ninth American Leaguer to win the award unanimously and the 19th overall, the last being Mike Trout in 2012. deGrom is the first Mets player to win the award since Dwight Gooden in 1984. Only one of the four ballots on which deGrom finished second to Hamilton was submitted by a Cinicinnati writer, the Cincinnati Enquirer’s John Erardi. Two of the other four were submitted by Cubs writers Phil Rogers and Fred Mitchell. The full voting results can be found at BBWAA.com.